Sunday, March 12, 2006

And now for something completely different… 

Take nine pairs of eight-year-old schoolchildren, the same number of K’nex construction sets, their teacher, and me…

I spent Thursday as the “professional engineer” running this challenge, at the school where my wife teaches. They were given a brief, and had to work in pairs to design and construct a model to fulfil that brief. I'm supposed to keep the brief secret, since schools take it turns to run the challenge using kits supplied by Young Engineers, and many have yet to take part. Unfortunately, that also prevents me going into too much detail here or showing any pictures.

The most striking thing that came out of it was the dramatic gender difference. The boys’ designs tended to be far more ambitious – often way-out and wildly impractical although also often very imaginative – whereas the girls adopted a much more methodical approach, with simpler designs that entirely fulfilled the brief without going over the top, and moreover they worked far more cooperatively together than the boys did. So it was that girls teams were the winners in both the morning and afternoon sessions.

I really dislike having to have winners in this kind of thing, but that’s that way the challenge, which is on a national scale, is organised. However much you pick out strengths in each of the designs, and stress they are all good, the children seem to have competitiveness so deeply embedded in their psyche that the most memorable thing they take away from it is the name of the winner.

This is an annual event, although the first time my wife’s school has taken part (it was her initiative that got us involved in the first place). It was a lot of fun and I’ll do it again next year, but I’m going to think really hard about how I present it to the children. The competitive element is far too strong and detracts from the wealth of learning that would be possible if only we could devote more time to thinking and talking, even if that means less time for building.

Anyhow, analysis aside, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day. It’s a long time since I’ve become engaged with children of that age – perhaps the most lively, inquisitive, enthusiastic age group of any – and some of their joy at being alive (they wouldn’t have put it in those terms, but that’s how it appeared to me) must have rubbed off on me.

Mind you, given the choice between the three Rs and half a day of what looked to be play, I know which one would have inspired a burst of joie-de-vivre in me at that age. Or at any age , come to that.

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